Rabbits or hares? The differences between 2 springtime animals (Mar.22)

By Kevin Short

Kevin Short / Daily Yomiuri Columnist

Here comes Peter Cottontail / Hopping down the Bunny Trail / Hippity-hoppity Hippity-hoppity / Easter’s on its way.

This is a little nursery rhyme I remember from my childhood. I don’t know if it is a traditional song, or if someone around me just made it up on the spot. The association of Easter with hares and rabbits, however, is close and undeniable.

Easter, which celebrates Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead, dominates the Christian spring calendar. The date is set as the Sunday after the full moon following the spring equinox. Depending on the timing of these celestial events, Easter can fall anywhere between March 22 and April 25. This year, the equinox just passed this last Tuesday, but with the moon new today the next full doesn’t arrive until Saturday, April 7. The following day will be Easter Sunday.

Although a major event in the liturgical calendar, Easter is also clearly an ancient celebration of spring that is much older than the Christian tradition. The very name Easter is believed to come from Eastre, or Ostare, a pre-Christian pagan goddess of spring. As is so often the case, the sacred motifs associated with the original pagan celebration, in this case eggs and hares, have been carried on into the modern festival.

Eggs are clearly a symbol of rebirth, a new cycle of the natural world exploding to life after the long cold months of winter. Spring is also the time of year when hares and rabbits begin their breeding season. Males energetically chase each other back and forth, and actively court the females. The old English adage “mad as a March hare” is based on this agitated behavior exhibited during the spring mating season–just witness the babbling insane antics of Lewis Carol’s memorable character the March Hare in Alice in Wonderland.

Hares and rabbits are classified in the Order Lagomorpha, a group of exclusively herbaceous grazing mammals with two sets of long, chisel-like incisors in the upper jaw. These teeth continue to grow throughout the animal’s lifetime, and are kept honed by constant use in cutting through tough plant food. Long ears and powerful rear legs are essential for detecting and escaping from their many enemies, which include foxes, wolves, wildcats, weasels, hawks and owls.

Although many people think of rabbits and hares as just different names for the same animals, they actually comprise two distinct families within the Lagomorpha. Most rabbits (genus Sylvilagus, ana-usagi in Japanese) dig nesting burrows, and their young are usually born blind and naked. Hares (genus Lepus, nousagi in Japanese), in contrast, give birth in simple grass nests, always well hidden inside a dense thicket. Their young arrive fully furred and with their eyes open. They quickly learn to fend for themselves.

The countryside of northern Europe and the British Isles, as well as the Appalachian Mountain region of North America, often features a landscape dominated by open pastureland bordered by hedges and coppice woods. Although this is a cultural rather than truly natural landscape, it provides ideal feeding and breeding habitat for rabbits and hares. The closely cropped pastures offer up a continuous supply of new plants, which these animals thrive on, while the hedges and woods serve as perfect places to hide and reproduce in.

The March hare that so frustrated Alice was probably a European hare (L. europaeus) or mountain hare (L. timidis). The Peter Cottontail in my nursery rhyme is the eastern cottontail (S. floridanus), a common species of rabbit native to eastern North America. These rabbits were incredibly numerous in the dairy farming country of the Appalachian Mountains where I lived as a boy. In fact, they formed the central core of a rich countryside food chain topped by foxes and medium-size birds of prey.

Here in the southern Kanto region, the local lagomorph is the Japanese hare. This species is endemic to Japan, which means that the hares are found here and nowhere else, and is native to the islands of Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu. On Hokkaido, however, the Japanese hare is replaced by the yuki-usagi, a subspecies (L. t. ainu) of the widely distributed mountain hare.

To an American used to seeing rabbits all over the place, the Japanese hare seems an exceedingly shy and elusive creature. Almost totally nocturnal, actual daytime glimpses are rare. Only tracks and scats in the fields, and an occasional half-eaten carcass, attest to a healthy local population.

Hare and rabbit tracks are distinctive, consisting of a set of two long prints made by the rear legs and two much shorter prints produced by the front. Contrary to reason, the animal is always traveling in the direction of the rear prints. Hares and rabbits land first on their two front feet, then swing their big rear legs all the way in front to generate a powerful push-off.

Hare scats are mounds of small pellets, about a centimeter or so in diameter. You can break them open to confirm that the hares are total vegetarians.

These scats are the end product of a unique digestion system. Lagomorphs pass rough fibrous plant food through their intestines once, then reingest their first set of feces, passing the food through a second time to extract more nutritional value before eliminating the final type of scats found in the field. A gardener friend of mine swears that these dried hare pellets make the best natural fertilizer for potted plants and vegetables.

Short is a naturalist and cultural anthropology professor at Tokyo University of Information Sciences.

(NATURE IN SHORT / Rabbits or hares? The differences between 2 springtime animals, Mar. 22, 2012)

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